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Bear Street 'ready to welcome back the world'

The $9.5 million redevelopment and beautification of Bear Street is complete and was fully opened to pedestrians and slow-moving vehicles as of Monday (July 19).

BANFF – The long-awaited $9.5 million redevelopment and beautification of Bear Street in the famed tourist town is complete.

The newly-designed 200 block of Bear Street has been turned into an outdoor plaza-like area and is now fully open to pedestrians and slow-moving vehicle traffic.

Town of Banff officials say the makeover aims to turn the street into a growing tourist attraction and boost businesses – and positions Canada’s premiere national park tourist town well to bounce back from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s ready to welcome back the world,” said Darren Enns, the director of planning and development for the Town of Banff.

“We’ve been in a bubble of COVID-19 for the last year-and-a-half and it’s a good reminder of how we need more space for people in our downtown core.”

Visitors appear to be loving the view already with the street’s outdoor restaurants, cafes and public seating areas.

“My first impression is that it's very family-friendly,” said Kamil Filipowski, a tourist from Vancouver who last visited Banff in 2013. “There is a really nice atmosphere without all the vehicles. I wish more cities would follow this example.”

Alex Desbiens, on holiday from Quebec, was enjoying spending time on Bear Street on Tuesday.

“It looks very much like a ski resort – it reminds me a little bit of Mont Tremblant near Montreal,” he said. “There is a nice vibe, nice feeling, it’s a space where people can hang out and have fun or feel relaxed with a coffee and people watch.”

Redevelopment of Bear Street, which sees a fraction of the foot traffic of nearby busy Banff Avenue, has been on the books since the 1992 downtown enhancement plan, and most recently was a recommendation of Banff’s 2012 transportation master plan.

Although many Town of Banff infrastructure projects and operating services were cancelled for 2020, redevelopment of Bear Street started in April 2020 to help stimulate the local tourism economy that had been crippled by the global COVID-19 crisis.

While construction replaced aging underground water and sewer systems, the beautification revamp also added impressive planters, lined the street with trees, new streetlights, public seating areas and a pedestrian-friendly ‘cobble-stone’ road.

Outdoor cafe and restaurant patios create a vibrant atmosphere, along with a gas fireplace in the centre of the street around which Adirondack chairs have been set up for people to gather.

There are no curbs or centre line, and the tile-slab surface and traffic-calming features aims to create an environment that envisions a better balance of the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and low-speed vehicles.

Additional temporary planters are being added on the street and surface parking lot for beautification and to help manage vehicle traffic and parking. The mobile nature of the planters will allow for adjustments to new traffic patterns.

Banff and Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT) is delighted with the end result.

“It was a really painful process – I’m not going to deny that – and it’s been really hard on people coupled with the pandemic, but I think the Town has created an incredible ambience,” said Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of BLLT.

“It’s a really amazing multi-purpose space that will allow us as a tourism bureau so much more opportunity to work with the businesses and work with the Town to really program and animate and bring more vibrancy.”

Bruce said the $9.5 million project is an investment in the community, noting she believes there will be a return on that investment in terms of visitation.

“It’s going to make it a very attractive street for visitors and locals alike,” she said. “It’s beautiful and it’s become a destination within our destination.”

Research in other communities where roads have been converted to pedestrian-friendly streets show increased pedestrian safety, visitor enjoyment and an economic boost to businesses.

Enns said living streets, or shared roads as they are also called, are designed to foster more sustainable and active modes of transportation as well as enhance the vibrancy of downtown spaces.

“It’s a chance to create a shared street, a different kind of street for Banff that is more focused on pedestrians and less focused on moving vehicles,” he said.

The Town of Banff inspected all final work on Bear Street on July 19 for official hand-over of the management of the street from construction contractor, Canmore-based Bremner Engineering and Construction Ltd., to municipal operations.

As part of this inspection, Enns said it is normal for some deficiencies to be identified for final remediation to ensure warranty.

“By and large, they are extremely minor in nature and will be wrapping up over the week,” he said.

“It’s been a long haul from a construction perspective, but everyone’s really glad to get this project wrapped up.”

While at times contentious among Bear Street business owners who were frustrated with the double-whammy financial fallout of the pandemic and a major construction project, there’s huge relief the redevelopment is complete.

“A big thank you to the residents of Banff, and specifically the businesses of Bear Street, for all their patience over the last 15 months,” Enns said.

– With files from Evan Buhler